All eyes on pro-life left and middle

BabyOnFlagAt this point, I think it’s safe to say that the Republicans (“You lie!“) are pretty much irrelevant when it comes to debates about health-care reform.

For religion reporters, that ought to be a very liberating statement for obvious reasons. There are still stories over there, in part because there are some Republicans and their religious supporters who actually do want an improved, most just, health-care system. But that’s not where the action is at the moment.

No, the action is in the middle of the faith-based marketplace and on the left. All of the debates that really matter are taking place between Democrats and, once again, they are about abortion and health-care rationing that’s controlled by the government or by independent boards set up by the government. People who care about the latter — hello, U.S. Catholic bishops — are trying to find ways to talk about this issue without the press ensnaring them in a “death panels” trap.

So keep your eye on one story: The attempts by pro-life Democrats to force and up-or-down vote on the status of the Hyde Amendment. Why is that so important? You see, there are all kinds of non-GOP people who are convinced that the legislation favored by President Barack Obama would, one way or another, steer tax dollars toward abortion coverage. You can also turn to on that.

This leads me to a report by U.S. News & World Report scribe Dan Gilgoff — written before the Obama speech, mind you — on a very timely topic: “Religious Progressives Raise Concerns About Abortion in Healthcare Reform.” It’s pretty complex stuff, but here’s the summary material:

Progressive faith leaders and organizations are pushing hard for healthcare reform along the lines that President Obama has articulated, but some of the most prominent have grown concerned with the House healthcare bill’s provisions for abortion coverage in the public health insurance plan. They object to pooled premiums of those participating in the public plan going to abortion coverage for others in the plan, as laid out in the House healthcare bill. Americans who are opposed to abortion, the activists say, shouldn’t be forced to pay for abortion procedures for others with their premiums.

Other faith-based liberals object to the House bill’s authorization of the Department of Health and Human Services to decide which types of abortions are covered by the public option. These religious activists, while opposed to much of the religious right’s agenda, are pressuring the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats to revise the amendment to the House bill that deals with abortion, authored by California Rep. Lois Capps.

Once again, the key is for journalists to try to find out who actually wants health-care reform and who does not. Then they can begin to pursue the complex divisions INSIDE the pro-health-care camp. That’s where the stories will unfold and, as always, abortion is one of the easiest fault lines to spot and define.

Here is a key chunk of Gilgoff’s report:

Progressive religious activists … generally favor a robust public option in healthcare reform and stand by the Capps amendment’s ban on federal funds for abortion in the private plans. But left-leaning activists are worried that without revising abortion provisions in the public option, the debate over abortion can bring down the whole healthcare reform effort.

“As Catholics, we recognize that dramatically shifting the way we fund abortion is problematic not only for us, but also is the wrong way to go politically in terms of reaching consensus with pro-life members of Congress,” says John Gehring, deputy communications director for the liberal group Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. “It’s definitely a sticking point, and it would be unfair to characterize it only as a conservative concern.”

Once again, the question is rather simple: Is the White House willing to back a health-reform package that can be supported by traditional Catholics, progressive Evangelicals, pro-life mainline Protestants, most Eastern Orthodox believers and other members of the wider religious world that wants to see strong restrictions on abortion? Does he want Catholic bishops standing behind him at the bill-signing photo op?

Over at Time, Michael Scherer is covering some of the same territory — with some concise, edgy language on the president’s repeated claims that current bills would not use tax dollars to fund abortions.

“You’ve heard that this is all going to mean government funding of abortion,” Obama said recently in a call to religious leaders. “Not true.” But this last statement, while technically correct, does not tell the whole story. The health-care reform proposed by House Democrats, if enacted, would in fact mark a significant change in the Federal Government’s role in the financing of abortions.

“It would be a dramatic shift,” says Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who has vowed to oppose the bill because of how it would affect abortion. Stupak says dozens of House Democrats may join him in opposing a final health-care compromise unless the abortion language is changed, presenting a clear challenge to Democratic vote counters that could imperil a party-line vote.

sbamug1Stupack goes on to say that the president either does not understand the legislation or is intentionally trying to mislead voters. That’s something that a Democrat does not want to have to say. He did not, however, call Obama a liar, which is a verbal grenade that the president tossed at others.

This is an important quote for religion-beat reporters. Read it carefully (best of all, in the context of the full text):

Some of people’s concerns have grown out of bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.

There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false — the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally. And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up — under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place.

So we have a presidential claim that some partisans are lying. Then he says other people are making false claims about other issues, including the abortion-funding question.

The bottom line question is this: Where does the “It is a lie” language stop? Did the president just call the U.S. Catholic bishops (click here for coverage), several dozen pro-life Democrats, Feminists for Life, leaders of the pro-life left and many other people liars?

Just asking.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    health-care rationing that’s controlled by the government or by independent boards set up by the government.

    Since you cited

    Claim: Page 29: Admission: your health care will be rationed!

    False: This section says nothing whatsoever about “rationing” or anything of the sort. Actually, it’s favorable to families and individuals, placing an annual cap on what they could pay out of pocket if covered by a basic, “essential benefits package.” The limits would be $5,000 for an individual, $10,000 for a family.

    Claim: Page 30: A government committee will decide what treatments and benefits you get (and, unlike an insurer, there will be no appeals process)

    False: Actually, the section starting on page 30 sets up a “private-public advisory committee” headed by the U.S. surgeon general and made up of mostly private sector “medical and other experts” selected by the president and the comptroller general. The advisory committee would have only the power “to recommend” what benefits are included in basic, enhanced and premium insurance plans. It would have no power to decide what treatments anybody will get. Its recommendations on benefits might or might not be adopted.

  • tmatt


    Yes, the panel making “recommendations” on funding issues is the key to all of that. That’s the panel Obama believes will raise “moral issues” and other tough decisions leading to a, what was the phrase, “difficult democratic conversation” about how to slash the medical costs of the elderly?

    Where is that NYTs quote again? Here it is in a piece of a Scripps column:

    While striving to avoid risky specifics, President Barack Obama has said it will be impossible to expand health-care services without tough-minded reforms that cut costs. This is especially true when discussing care for the elderly.

    “That’s where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues. But that’s also a huge driver of cost, right? I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here,” said Obama, in a much-quoted New York Times interview.

    “I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. … That’s part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance.”

  • Linus

    I happen to be a Catholic who is pro-life, and a political conservative. We could use some health care reform but I want the reforms to be in the private sector. There really is no need for the Gov to get involved except to get out of the way, to stop errecting road blocks at the National and State levels. I have never been one who went all ga ga just because the Bishops can’t seem to understand what Subsidiarity means or that( for some strange reason) they are always pressing the Fed Gov to do something. Sorry you don’t like conservatives.

  • tmatt


    There are plenty of places to talk about the issues themselves. This is a journalism blog.

    I am arguing that the story, right now, is on the left. That’s where the key debates are taking place.

  • Blake Helgoth

    I agree that the left is in control. That was what the last election was about. Hardly anyone listened then, now the ball is in their court as far as supreme court nominies, the health care bill, the Hyde Amendment, etc. The right no longer matters. The bishops threw in their lot with the left a long time ago and now they find that the left does not even consider them a concern. …

  • Jerry


    I see the point you are making. I was hypersensitive on this topic given the outright lies that are being flung around and the unprecedented actions not only by one congressman, but by others who had signs as if this were a political rally and not a formal speech to Congress. I had a considerable head of steam.

    I thought today’s factcheck analysis was fair in its analysis.

    The one thing I would like to see is some historical analysis comparing President Obama’s statements on health care reform against speeches by former presidents of both parties. There is the example of President Bush and others hiding deficits by not putting them on the budget, FDR concealing his efforts to get us into WWII but I really don’t have a substantive historical picture of presidential salesmanship versus presidential honesty.

    But at least in this case we have a comparable analysis of the republican response

  • dalea

    For the religion beat reporter this requires a knowlege of economics and of medical practice, which I’m not convinced they are up to. Notice that the deceptively simple question what does it mean to say the government spends money? is missing. Missing also is the elementary analysis of source of funds: not all the money being discussed comes from taxes. Much will come from fee for service, payments into the various options from individuals and their employers; these are not tax monies. They are fee for service, which is a totally different situation.

    There is also a distinction between government funding and insurance. One consists of direct payments the other a system of risk sharing, which is a fancy way of saying gambling. This is a very complicated financial system, and probably difficult for most journalists to fully comprehend.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Love the mug.

  • wmb

    Here is the medical part of it, “at least one practicing physician or other health professional”

    One person.

    It is chaired by the Surgeon General, the rest are just lobbiest. Another words, our health care benefits will be chosen by the lobbies that now control our government.

    (5) Participation.–The membership of the Health Benefits
    Advisory Committee shall at least reflect providers, consumer
    representatives, employers, labor, health insurance issuers,
    experts in health care financing and delivery, experts in
    racial and ethnic disparities, experts in care for those with
    disabilities, representatives of relevant governmental
    agencies. and at least one practicing physician or other health
    professional and an expert on children’s health and shall
    represent a balance among various sectors of the health care
    system so that no single sector unduly influences the
    recommendations of such Committee.

  • Jay

    The 18 members are appointed by the president or by the Comptroller General (who is appointed by a president, not necessarily the current one). It does seem odd that more medical professionals are not included by statute.